A frontier of new possibilities

Ernesto Ruffo envisions a new image - and maybe even a new name - for a troubled zone.

Winds whip up dust so thick it makes breathing or even driving in this sun-baked border town difficult. But in those dust clouds, Mexico's new "czar" for US-Mexico border affairs sees opportunity.

"Paving these roads is one way we can make the border a cleaner and healthier community," says Ernesto Ruffo, a former governor of Mexico's Baja California state and Mexico's first commissioner for the northern border.

His drive to transform the border reflects not just the optimism of a man who broke new ground in 1989 when he became Mexico's first opposition governor in modern times. It is a vision shared by Mexican President Vicente Fox, who created Mr. Ruffo's post shortly after taking office in December. Fox had campaigned on a promise of economic growth, with the border seen as a motor for building Mexican prosperity.

The soft-spoken Ruffo, whose tan cowboy boots reflect an affinity with Mexico's cowboy president, is putting his initial emphasis on economic development and on infrastructure, which he calls "the border's biggest problem after migration."

In the case of Agua Prieta, its twin city - Douglas, Arizona - is already helping with the dust problem, which affects both sides. Douglas sells asphalt at cost to Agua Prieta, which can buy more (and pave more) than it would be able to if it had to truck in asphalt from farther south in Mexico.

But as the border's problems become more complex, Ruffo says, local solutions - especially financing - won't be enough. Pointing to strains on infrastructure, Ruffo, interviewed in his Tijuana office, says one idea he's developing is a bond program to raise funding for both sides. "I envision a fund capitalized with bonds, governed by a council formed out of the offices of the 10 border governors [six in Mexico, four in the US] and financed with user fees," he says. "If we can figure out how to finance, we can go a long way toward addressing the problems we have."

Fox and President Bush discussed the need for more money for border infrastructure when they met at Fox's ranch in Guanajuato in February.

Infrastructure is being strained on both sides of the border. The Southwest Center for Environmental Research and Policy, a consortium of US and Mexican universities, estimates in a 2000 report that the border lacks $8 billion in infrastructure to meet US standards. Demands on water delivery, sanitation, highways, border crossings.and airports will mushroom to $20 billion by 2020, the report concludes.

Though Ruffo's bond idea hasn't been approved yet, the very existence of his office has inspired discussion in US border states and the US Congress over whether the US should create a similar position to highlight border issues and coordinate projects.

But Tijuana border specialist Jorge Bustamante doesn't think a US counterpart would work. "In the US, the highly developed nature of various local and state authorities means people would see it as intervention," he says. "In Mexico, it works because of the traditional centralization of the country." And even in Mexico, Mr. Bustamante sees Ruffo on a "collision course" with border governors.

But Paul Ganster, director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University, sees a US equivalent as a good idea. "Ruffo represents getting all the [Mexican] federal agencies to work in a coordinated fashion," he says. "We have that same issue on the US side."

Naming a US border czar "would say the US, too, is determined to deal with the border in a more integrated way."

Ruffo says changing the border's image might require something bold - like giving the region a new name. "I think we need something new, reflecting how what is developing here is different from what most people think," he says. Ruffo suggests "Mexus" because "it sounds modern." Of course, even the staunchest promoter of border cooperation on the US side might have a different idea - say, Usmex.

Despite Ruffo's optimism and initiative, changing the border's image won't be easy.

For some observers and residents, the border over the past decade has become a low-intensity war zone. Drug trafficking has increased, along with illegal immigration and migrant smuggling, even as the US has stepped up surveillance.

Then there are the travails of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which took effect in January 1994. Though the border has boomed as trade volume between the two countries soared - from $106 billion in 1994 to $275 billion last year - the negative side-effects have included unmanageably rapid population growth and environmental deterioration.

But despite NAFTA's problems, the Mexican side of the border has emerged as one of Mexico's most prosperous regions. It now boasts the highest per capita income in the nation after Mexico City, and the lowest unemployment and highest education levels in the country.

The US side, however, has actually lagged behind the rest of the US, even as NAFTA-fed trade has boomed.

Local officials, such as Laredo Mayor Betty Flores, say much of NAFTA's prosperity rolls through on trucks - in Laredo, up to 13,000 a day - but has yet to take hold locally. Many of the jobs NAFTA has created locally - in warehousing, for example - are low-paying, while better-paying, trade-related jobs have bloomed elsewhere. "The US border has fallen further behind the rest of the nation in the last decade," says Ganster. "It's not sharing in the prosperity that's resulted from NAFTA."

Another problem is that the border has often been treated as a headache by both Washington, which sees it as a source of trouble, and Mexico City, which has suspected its border states of being more American than Mexican.

Despite the many challenges of the US-Mexico relationship, Ruffo says, "In the past you heard more comments like, 'Your side [of the border] is doing this or that to our side.' But now what you hear is, 'Trade is our common focus, and will only happen if we work together.' "

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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